Lex Indicium

Is “i” Passé? What the Apple Watch Is Telling Us About Technology Branding

April 30, 2015


Anyone who knows me at all knows that I suffer from a terrible affliction called “early adopter syndrome.” I had a cell phone when it really was more of a brick with a speaker and the first smartphone, I can tell you, was not terribly smart at all. There was a lot of staring at the screen waiting for it to bring up a website or a low res photo… As a result of my affliction, there is a veritable cemetery of old devices at my house, all acquired soon after launch.

So now I’ve been hit again – this time with Apple’s… iWatch, er… the Apple Watch. What is that thing called? Officially it’s the “Apple Watch.” A simple name. All business, elegant design, understated but direct. The name fits the device. Just a watch – but it’s not just a watch right? It’s the Apple watch. It’s about as much of a watch as a Tesla vehicle is just a car. Why is a company that has invested so much in the “i” prefix to connote that its devices are “new,” “more,” and “unique” suddenly reverted to referring to its super integrated wrist candy as a mere “watch”?

Theories abound. Several analysts have concluded that Apple is moving away from “i” as the prefix because that convention may have run its course. That may be true. Initially the “i” prefix was supposed to conjure cutting edge and different (and maybe “internet”). You could say that such associations with a little “i” are a bit quaint in 2015. Maybe its become hackneyed and old to append the “i” to anything else since it suggests a lineage to something almost pre-millennial now—kind of the way appending .com to your name became old hat in the last decade.

Another theory for Apple’s watch moniker is that this device isn’t simply the progeny of its “i” forebears. Certainly early reviews which focus on the different interface, the device’s frustrations and its cutting edge design as ‘wearable tech’ would suggest that the Watch is not just a chip off the iPhone. So perhaps dropping the prefix was a deliberate attempt to communicate a product line divergence from the family of earlier “i” devices.

Of course, as a trademark attorneys I can’t help but see that iWatch was not an available brand. Indeed, there seems to have been a veritable land rush to acquire the trademark iWatch in the U.S. before Apple got there, with several competing applications on file. In the U.S. and elsewhere, Swatch AG has contended that iWatch and Swatch are too similar, with Swatch prevailing in at least some jurisdictions. Hence, Apple’s reversion to the simplicity of Apple Watch may have been as much about availability of its preferred brand as it was about adopting a new mojo that better connoted the device’s unique combination of design and function.

Interestingly, all brand owners, and maybe especially technology brand owners, have to refresh even successful brands in order to remain with their target demographic. It’s a curious irony of branding that it’s very intent—to inculcate loyalty through consistent and long usage—is undercut by consumer assumptions that technology brands can’t harken to anything older than a nanosecond. If it’s old, it can’t be good. This forces brand owners to constantly reinvent themselves and their branding in ways that sometimes appear to undercut the very investment they’ve made.

As an example, Buick has devised a whole ad campaign around its market shift by adopting the curious “That’s not a Buick” slogan. It’s a bit unusual to promote your brand by dissing the goodwill you gained with the last generation of buyers, but that’s the price you pay to appeal to the new demographic.

Anyway, to the extent Apple’s choice to forgo the name “iWatch” reflects anything other than the inconvenience of the unavailability of the name, they are not alone in wrestling with refreshing the branding in an effort to capture and maintain market share. In a year when Apple’s market cap is expected to exceed $1 trillion, it seems that if they had really wanted to launch the iWatch, Apple could have done so. It seems likely that there is a message in the excision of the “i.” Of course that message elicits precisely the reaction in me Apple likely wants. I want to see how this isn’t the iPhone… As for my early adopter issues… I’m one of those people waiting for my “Apple Watch” to be shipped!!!

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